The title alludes to Whitman’s Democratic Vistas, and David Marc, a professor of American Civilization at Brown University, begins, ends, and sprinkles the middle of this study with quotations from Whitman. The preface announces “a Whitmanian faith in the ability of the individual consciousness to mingle with a collective cultural conscious ness.” And part of the book’s strategy is to juxtapose demography in its television context with democracy in its Whitmanian context. 

Marc claims that his book seeks “neither to justify television’s existence nor eradicate it from the face of culture,” but at the same time he declines the mask of the “value-free” investigator, acknowledging that we already suffer from too much freedom from values. He realizes there is no posture he can honestly assume that would set him objectively outside a television culture “that turns it on, creates it, rewards it, despises it, forgets it, and remembers it.” He respects television as “the most effective purveyor of language, image, and narrative in American culture,” and he bewails the absence of serious humanistic discourse on the subject. Marc’s method is a modified version of inductive literary criticism, his first loyalty being to individual television programs (“texts” in the current idiom) rather than to any communications theory. But always he is more concerned with television’s role in American culture than with programs themselves. 

The necessarily selective and admittedly autobiographical analyses of the formulas shaping sit-coms, police and detective series, variety shows, and late night weekend comedy are engaging, filled with information about producers, performers, and commercial realities. The reader gets a close-up look at The Beverly Hillbillies, Jackie Gleason, and Saturday Night Live. But treatment of the large questions concerning the moral and cultural impact of television on American society is problematic. 

Marc asserts, for example, that television is capable of generating as much cynicism as docility, and the viewer who can transform that cynicism into critical energy “can declare the war with television over and instead savor the oracular quality of the medium.” He holds up the model of Barthes and other French critics who find patterns of significance in even the most trivial manifestations of popular culture. He also speaks of a “tough-minded skepticism that can make TV a meaningful experience.” And he points out that, “fortunately, the integrity of the individual resides in the autonomy of the imagination” and therefore is not doomed by the inanities of television. While acknowledging that TV executives use demography to plan their programming because they want mass conformity, he insists that the “resilience of the human spirit” must welcome this as a test. 

These sanguine notions prompt questions. How many vieWers will have the ingenuity of a Barthes and be able to appreciate the “oracular” quality of television? Will attention to this “oracular” quality distract us from concern with improving actual program quality? Is training tough-minded skeptics preferable to eliminating some of the necessity for skepticism? W’here could that training come from, anyway, when television itself monopolizes so much of people’s time and attention? How much “autonomy of imagination” can realistically be expected of the general viewing audience? Does the “resilience of the human spirit,” already strained to the breaking point in a chaotic modern world, need another test, which conceivably could be to some extent obviated? Despite its claim of rejecting value free investigation, Demographic Vistas skirts all but the most superficial value issues. 


[Demographic Vistas: Television in American Culture, by David Marc; Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press]